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Netanyahu Backs Shin Bet Amid Criticism over Jewish Terror Investigation


Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stated support for the Shin Bet domestic security service on Tuesday, in apparent answer to complaints against the agency by the families of five minors detained during an extended investigation into Jewish terrorism. The five Israeli teenagers Jewish minors are suspected of hurling stones at the car of Palestinian woman Aisha al-Rawb last October, leading to her death. They are all under the age of 18 and have not been formally charged. The lawyers of the minors, as well as some prominent public figures, criticized the Shin Bet's interrogation methods, which they believe are unethical. President Reuven Rivlin warned Tuesday about the dangers of attacking the Shin Bet, and urged critics to "refrain from irresponsibly attacking those whose job it is to defend Israel's security from domestic and foreign threats." Speaking at the swearing-in ceremony of 29 new judges in Jerusalem, Rivlin emphasized that he was not suggesting the security agency is above criticism, which, he believes is a central function of any democratic country. "There is no democracy without criticism," said the president, "The criticism, even of our key agencies … is the best disinfectant and a fundamental requirement. The Shin Bet, however, is responsible for the safety of our citizens. "I, therefore, want to express my support for those who serve in all security forces, and particularly the men and women of the Shin Bet. They save lives day and night, and because of their service, our children and us can sleep peacefully," Rivlin said. One of the prominent figures who expressed their support for the detained Israeli teenagers is Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked. On Monday, Shaked met with some family members of the detained minors, and demanded that Netanyahu act swiftly to ensure the Jewish terror suspects were released as soon as possible. She also urged the security agency to look for "the actual criminals." The parents of the three main suspects publicly condemned both the justice system and the Shin Bet during their meeting with Shaked, calling on Netanyahu to intervene in the investigation. "Apparently, boys with side curls have no rights in Israel. The interrogators spat at him and shouted that he was a murderer. Do you expect a 16-year-old to behave normally after this ordeal? Instead of looking for the killer they chase after our children. We are being persecuted because we look different. We call upon Netanyahu to release the boys today. They should go look for the real criminals," the father of one suspect said. "They just kidnapped him from our home. They didn't even let me say goodbye. He wasn't wearing any socks and left without his tefillin. ...The Shin Bet called us and asked for permission to give him medicine because he is ill. They can't say they don't use torture in interrogations because I don't believe it. Who knows what he will end up confessing to?" one of the mothers said. In response to the families' accusations, the Shin Bet issued a statement saying that the detainees' religious and medical needs were fully met. "The suspects... did not raise any complaints with the Israel Prison Service (IPS) medical team or with the courts during their remand hearings and appeals. During their detention, the suspects' religious needs were accommodated, including prayer items and clothing, and they were permitted to perform religious rituals on Shabbat." According to a video published by the Shin Bet, the teenagers also filmed themselves burning the Israeli flag. The security forces also confiscated Israeli flags daubed with Nazi slogans from the home of one of the detained teenagers. The five minors are suspected of hurling stones at a car of a Palestinian woman in October, leading to her death. Aisha al-Rawbi, 47, and her husband Aykube, 52, were driving through the junction with their nine-year-old daughter, on their way back from a family wedding in Hebron, when a large rock was thrown at their car, hitting Aisha in the head and killing her. The five Israeli teenagers arrested in the case are suspected of a series of severe terrorism offenses, including her death. They are all under the age of 18 and have not been formally charged. The flag that was taken from the home of one of the minors had "Death to the Zionists" and "This stinking flag"—alongside a drawing of a swastika—written on it. Lawyers for the five suspects said their clients were being held in isolation in a bid by the Shin Bet in order to force false confessions. The Shin Bet dismissed claims that their interrogation methods were unethical. "The Shin Bet acts in accordance with the law to thwart terror activity, regardless of where it originates," said the agency in a statement. "As part of the investigation into the attack, we found evidence that indicates the suspects had anti-Zionist and extremist motives … evidenced by the activity and the harsh language used by the minors to attack the State of Israel and its symbols. "The allegations that the agency kidnapped the suspects are baseless," the Shin Bet said, adding that "a judge issued warrants before the arrest, and immediately after the teenagers' families were informed. The suspects were not allowed to meet with their lawyers for the first six days of interrogation due to being suspected of terrorism offenses." The Shin Bet also rejected the accusation of abuse during the interrogation process, saying that anti-terrorism measures taken by the agency are standard, and applied to all terror suspects, regardless of whether they are Arab or Jewish. "The interrogatees were held using the standard procedures, separately from adult detainees … they did not raise any concerns about their well-being either with the Shin Bet medical staff or the court officials during the appeal hearings," said the agency's statement.

Settler Population Rises to Nearly 450,000

The number of Israelis living in Judea and Samaria rose to nearly 450,000 during 2018 settler leaders reported Tuesday. According to a report released by the Yesha Council – the umbrella group representing Israeli municipalities across Judea and Samaria – the Israeli population in the area reached 448,672 in 2018. That marks a significant decline in the annual growth rate of the total settlement population, which grew by just 12,964 people in 2018, equaling 3.0% annual growth, compared to 14,299 in 2017 (3.4%), 15,765 in 2016 (3.9%), 15,617 in 2015 (4.0%), and 15,558 in 2014 (4.2%). The decline in 2018 is part of a long-term trend over the past decade. In 2008, the last year before President Barack Obama took office, the Israeli population of Judea and Samaria was growing by 5.6% annually, or nearly three times the growth rate of the population of Israel as a whole (2.0%). Settler leaders blame the slowing growth rate on a lack of housing permits from the government. Despite a significant rise in the number of housing permits and tenders issued in 2017 and 2018, the number of homes completed declined significantly in 2018, following a drop in the number of permits issued during the Obama administration. From November 2009 to September 2010, the Israeli government – under pressure from Obama - froze most construction projects in Israeli towns in Judea and Samaria, and drastically cut the number of new housing permits issued. Even after the building freeze ended, the government limited the number of housing permits in Judea and Samaria, leading to a long-term decline in construction in the area. While the number of permits issued and housing starts has increased since Obama's departure, settlement leaders say the number of new tenders issued still do not meet demand. "There's not enough construction in Judea and Samaria," said Yesha Council chief Hananel Dorani. "The amount of new construction based on a project, which was already approved isn't enough to satisfy the growth rate. We're happy to see that the number of residents in the area is increasing, despite the lack of sufficient housing across the settlements in recent years." The number of settlements in Judea and Samaria rose in 2018, with the first new state-sanctioned settlement in Judea and Samaria in a quarter of a century, Amichai. The first residents of Amichai moved into temporary homes there in March 2018. With the establishment of Amichai, the number of fully-recognized settlements established by the government rose to 133.

In Repressive Myanmar (Burma), a Tiny Jewish Community Hangs on to the Past

By the Jerusalem Post

There was a Chanukah party last month in Yangon. Myanmar's former capital city and enough guests — over 200 — to surprise an uninvited tourist. "They're no Jews here anymore," the tourist proclaims, confused about the celebration at the regal Chatrium Hotel. "Yes there are," replied Ari Solomon, a guest from Australia. "No, they said there are 10 families," the tourist responded. "Well, that's not nothing – that's 10 families," Solomon counters. "That's a lot. You go back to my hometown, Calcutta, and there are lucky to be 16 Jews, let alone 10 families." Indeed, Myanmar's Jewish community has dwindled to about 20 people. Most of the Jews had fled when Japan invaded the country in World War II, as the Axis power distrusted them for their perceived political alignment with the British. The majority who remained left in the mid-1960s, when the new regime nationalized businesses as part of a socialist agenda that would soon run the country into the ground. Still, Sammy Samuels, 38, the de facto leader of this Southeast Asian nation's remaining Jewish community, has held out hope for its future, if not a revival. In recent years his father, Moses, had maintained the community, opening the door of Yangon's sole synagogue daily in the hopes of welcoming tourists. Following his father's death in 2015, Samuels has taken over, embracing social media and tourism to keep the community alive. But while he has replenished the dried-up well of history with the fresh water of modernity, Myanmar's fraught politics – most notably the crime perpetrated by its military against the Rohingya Muslims – are bringing a downturn in tourism and putting those gains at risk. "[Everyone] thinks that we're small community [and that there's] nothing going on," Samuels says at the December 7th Chanukah celebration. "But we have this kind of event, the government people come — the embassy, friends and family, too." The Jewish community here grew rapidly from the mid-1800s through 1942. At its peak, 3,000 Jews called Myanmar home when it was still known as Burma. Some rose to local power, like David Sofaer, who in the 1930s served as the mayor of Yangon, then known as Rangoon. Myanmar at the time was still a component of the British Empire. Jewish restaurants, pharmacies and schools once marked the city's streets. While these businesses have dissipated, Stars of David still adorn some buildings in Yangon: a school nearly 40 minutes from downtown; a skincare shop in the heart of downtown; a paint store across the street from the synagogue. In the 1920s, the famed British author George Orwell, then a colonial police officer in Burma, recognized the Jewish presence there, albeit cynically. He condemned British operations in the country for being "a device for giving trade monopolies to the English – or rather to gangs of Jews and Scotchmen." "My great-grandfather came to Rangoon around the mid-19th century," Samuels told JTA in an interview. A Jewish community – Orwell's "gangs" – soon began to flourish, with many, like the Samuels family, coming from Baghdad, Iraq, in search of economic prosperity. Today, the 19th century Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue in Yangon sits solitary in this land of golden pagodas and remains wholly unguarded in the city's main Muslim neighborhood. "People [here] would not understand what is `anti-Semitism,'" says Samuels, whose Burmese name is Aung Soe Lwin. "Thank God, there's no such a word here." The owners of the shops surrounding the synagogue – mostly men wearing traditional Burmese longyi and Muslim kufi and thawb – are not hawking Judaica but super glue and paint, among other utility products. Spitting the residue from their chewed betel nut, these shopkeepers — teenagers, middle-aged and elderly — stain the street a crimson red. "Five buildings away, we have a mosque. And then right in front of us is the Buddhist temple," Samuels says. "What a combination." Samuels credits this respect across Myanmar's ethnic and religious groups as directly tied to Israel. Joe Freeman explains in Tablet magazine that Burma was Israel's "first friend" in Asia, as both countries secured independence from the British in 1948. Burma's first Prime Minister, U Nu, had a "soft spot for Israel" and was close with David Ben-Gurion, his Israeli counterpart. U Nu was the first prime minister of any country to visit the Jewish state. "The Burmese population, if you tell them `Judaism' they don't know, but if you tell `Israel,' they feel like Israel is a religion," Samuels says. "They fully respect Israel." But Yangon's religious diversity, which has long bestowed Jews with safety, is not reflective of Myanmar at large. The majority of the country remains off-limits for tourists due to raging ethnic conflicts; Jews historically lived mostly in Yangon and Mandalay. In 2016, the Myanmar military ramped up its long-running persecution of the Rohingya Muslims, whom most Burmese regard as outsiders and some as terrorists. The military's barbarism of the community includes torching villages, throwing babies into fires, decapitating young boys and mass rape. Some 1.1 million Rohingya have fled Myanmar; thousands are believed to have been killed in what a United Nations investigator called an ongoing genocide. People in Yangon, from the Bamar ethnic majority to its Muslims, are disconnected from if not outwardly antagonistic toward the Rohingya in the Rakhine State. Burmese social media is awash with anti-Rohingya posts. Samuels, perhaps due to his Western education and Jewish understanding of the horrors of ethnic scapegoating, speaks more empathetically about the Rohingya. He even uses the word "Rohingya," although the Israeli government, in line with Myanmar's government's preference, refuses to do the same. Israel allowed its arms firms to sell weapons to Myanmar's military through the fall of 2017. During an interview, Ronen Gilor, the Israeli ambassador to Myanmar, declined to comment on this issue. "It's an unfortunate event what happened in the Rakhine State," Samuels says cautiously, likely because of Myanmar's limited freedom of speech. "We really sympathize with them." The U.S. Holocaust Museum recently classified the crimes against the Rohingya as genocide. Samuels politely opts not to comment on Israel's arming of Myanmar's military as well. He does say, however, that the military's campaign has caused a decline in tourism. "A lot of people start to boycott traveling to Myanmar, but when we say tourism, it's not just about us, a tour company, or the hotel or airline. It involves the tour guide, taxi driver, hotel bellman," he says. "They should not be punished for what happened. When you come here as a tourist, you see things differently." Even when Myanmar was a pariah state, Moses Samuels had long helped Jewish tourists interested in visiting the country, answering their queries regarding accommodations, flights and restaurants. Father and son eventually turned it into a business: Myanmar Shalom Travel and Tours. "Thank God, since 2011, the country start[ed] changing unbelievably" and business began "booming," the younger Samuels says. This increased business corresponded with a series of political, economic and administrative reforms pursued by Myanmar's military junta. The junta even released from house arrest Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Prize-winning human rights advocate who spent nearly 15 years in some form of imprisonment and now runs the country's civilian government. (She has since drawn criticism for her unwillingness to stand up for the Rohingya, although she has no control over the military.) A photo of Sammy Samuels and his family with Suu Kyi remains part of a photo display outside the synagogue. Samuels says that since 2011, social media has played a key role in strengthening his community. "We have a WhatsApp group, `Yangon Jews,'" he says. While others in Myanmar have used WhatsApp to encourage violence against Rohingya (the United Nations said it played "a determining role"), Samuels has used the platform for good. And beyond social media, Samuels praises the Israeli Embassy for contributing to Yangon's Jewish community. "The Israeli Embassy and us – I would even say it's a family," he says. Gilor echoed those thoughts in an interview. "It's a very good thing to have collaboration with Sammy and the Jewish community," the ambassador told JTA, calling the community "a bridge" among Myanmar, Israel and the Jewish world. Gilor is among the Chanukah celebration's VIP guests, as is Phyo Min Thein, the chief minister of Yangon. Other leaders, including those from the local interfaith dialogue and Buddhist, Muslim, Christian, Baha'i, and Hindu communities, are on hand, too. Two Myanmar Shalom-organized tour groups – one of Israelis and one of Jews with familial histories in Myanmar – account for the overwhelming majority of the night's Jewry. Solomon, the Australian guest who appeared to be in his 60s, told JTA in an interview that his mother was born in Burma. During the Japanese invasion, she fled to Kolkata, India. Solomon was born in Kolkata, formerly Calcutta, and neither his mother nor anyone from his immediate family had ever returned to Burma. "My father forbade us from coming back because of the military junta," Solomon says. Solomon's mother is 90, so his father finally concedes – partially due to the Samuels-organized tour. "This my last chance to come and take back videos and pictures while she can still appreciate them," Solomon said when asked if he had reservations about visiting Myanmar. "This is my only chance. … She came alive once I arrived in Burma and rang back." Her caretakers "wheeled her around to Dad's iPad, and we spoke and she was so happy." Samuels once pursued opportunities beyond Myanmar's stifled borders, attending Yeshiva University and working for the American Jewish Congress in New York City. A Jewish visitor to Yangon had helped him get into Y.U. and obtain a full scholarship. Samuels would have been unable to obtain such an education in Myanmar, as the nation's universities were closed intermittently for years as part of a military effort to bulwark repeated student revolutions.

"I could've moved to the U.S. and lived a better life," Samuels says, explaining why he returned home following his father's 2015 death. "But our main mission here is very simple: We don't want any Jewish visitor coming to this country to be a stranger."

By that measure, the Chanukah event was a coup for Samuels. "Things change," he says, recalling years when he celebrated the Festival of Lights with fewer than 20 people. "A few years ago, no Burmese people knew of Chanukah. Now the Buddhists wish me on Facebook `Happy Chanukah Sammy!'" And while the synagogue is ranked third on TripAdvisor among Yangon's "things to do," Samuels remains incapable of securing a minyan without assistance from tourists. Another sign of decay is Yangon's Jewish cemetery: Unlike its counterpart in Kolkata, it is neither computerized nor indexed, Solomon complained. In 1997, the Myanmar government announced its intentions to move the cemetery out of Yangon but never followed through. The graveyard remains hidden on a hill that some stray dogs have claimed as their territory; a sign outside proclaims it to be only accessible "with permission from Myanmar Jewish Community." Samuels gives me such permission by jotting down a phrase in Burmese on a business card, which I hand to the old woman who guards the cemetery and appears to live on its grounds. Modernity pokes through the cemetery's historical veneer: A TV satellite protrudes from the caretaker's home above the graves, and her young associate, who smiles and casually watches me as I wander the grounds, plays Burmese pop music from his smartphone while smoking a cigarette. Instead of stones placed by visitors, debris comprised largely of shattered Hebrew-lettered gravestones sits atop the few intact graves. As Samuels creates a modern community in Myanmar, the physical memory of its Burmese predecessor continues to crumble.

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